Today’s edition of the New York Times contains a story about the relationship of three characters, the gist of which bears all the resemblance of the classic struggle that occurs when individuals suddenly find themselves intertwined with one another. This menage et toi is one filled with high drama, doubt, suspicion, and jealousy. It’s about insiders and outsiders; friends and enemies. But a problem exists for the reader of this story. Like the patron who enters the theatre in the middle of Act 3, the reader will find it difficult to identify this drama as either a tragedy or comedy, and as such, they will have to quickly distinguish the good guys from the bad. Eventually that reader, in his sole discretion, will choose whose side he’s on.
The characters in this story are a public relations firm working for the largest corporate retailer in America, a reporter working for the largest newspaper in America, and a cache of independent writers. The actors are Mr. Marshall Manson of Wal-Mart PR firm Edelman, Michael Barbaro of The New York Times, and Bloggers. That’s where I come into the story.
I’m not going to go through an exhaustive replay of all the twists and turns on this. It’s easy enough to get caught up. Feel free to read past stories from Barbaro to understand the NYT position on Wal-Mart. Likewise, it’s just as easy to read what other pro Wal-Mart bloggers have to say about this matter. As for me, I’m simply going to give insight into my part in this play.
The New York Times has for the the last couple of months focused on the corporate practices of Wal-Mart, it’s leadership, and now one of the public relations firms it employs. In today’s story, Barbaro finds that the retailer has enlisted the help of individual bloggers who have previously identified themselves as being sympathetic to Wal-Mart’s cause. Barbaro questions the independence of the bloggers who receive pro Wal-Mart news from Mr. Manson. He questions our ability to be objective, our disclosure practices, and wonders if we are really nothing more than robotic echo chambers for the corporate home office.
Under assault as never before, Wal-Mart is increasingly looking beyond the mainstream media and working directly with bloggers, feeding them exclusive nuggets of news, suggesting topics for postings and even inviting them to visit its corporate headquarters.
But the strategy raises questions about what bloggers, who pride themselves on independence, should disclose to readers. Wal-Mart, the nation’s largest private employer, has been forthright with bloggers about the origins of its communications, and the company and its public relations firm, Edelman, say they do not compensate the bloggers.
But some bloggers have posted information from Wal-Mart, at times word for word, without revealing where it came from.
I’m a conservative, and my blog postings reflect this position.
I am a member of a group of bloggers who receive emailed information from Marshall Manson concerning Wal-Mart. I accepted an invitation to receive the story tips and I decide which ones interest me and which don’t. I’ve never been compensated by Edelman, Manson, Wal-Mart or The New York Times. I’ve never been offered compensation to write any blog article.
Mr. Barbaro spoke to me on the telephone last week as he was preparing his story. We spoke about my relationship with Manson and my feelings about Wal-Mart. During the conversation it became clear to me that Barbaro was missing important information about bloggers and the blogosphere we populate. I explained that there are few rules, if any. There isn’t a code of ethics other than the heart and soul of each individual blogger. There are a wide variety of blogging styles; the copy-and-pasters, the linkers, and those who write then cite.
On this blog, I do a little of everything. Sometimes the published story is the best way to communicate my message, and when that’s the case, I’ll copy and paste a lot of it within the article I’m posting. Other times, a simple linked headline is enough. That’s the blogosphere. It isn’t the newsroom of America’s largest newspaper.
Barbaro has heard something about bloggers. He understands us to be unpaid citizen journalists who are quick to point out our biases. Yet he kept questioning me on my independence, and asked whether I ‘felt’ bad or good about the idea that I might be perceived to be in Wal-Mart’s pocket. Their lacky, if you will. I made it clear to him that I have never felt any pressure to spin the few Wal-Mart focused blog posts I’ve written in either direction. All throughout the interview, I sensed a sort of bewilderment in Barbaro. To his credit, he wasn’t condescending. He didn’t come after me for being rather harsh to him in a recent article I wrote. He didn’t try to minimize the effect bloggers have had on this story, or any other. He just sort of hung there with me, puzzling and puzzling, trying to relate. It was clear that this New York Times reporter was navigating uncharted waters.
I don’t think it is evil for corporations to enlist bloggers to amplify their message. If the blogger decides to push the message along, it’s his or her choice. Conversely, if a blogger chooses to counter that message, again, it’s their choice. If a blogger has a passion for a particular topic and they write a lot about it, it’s possible that first time readers could assume the blogger’s professional interests somehow intersect. In the blogosphere, that’s usually a bad assumption to make. I have a feeling that Mr. Barbaro read many of our blogs for the first time while doing research on this piece. In many ways he jumped to conclusions about who we are and what we do.
On the issue of disclosure, if I include information from other sources, I link it. If I am introduced to stories from sources via email and I decide to blog about them, I go to the linked web pages and cite them for my article. I don’t typically mention or credit the individual who emailed me. It’s as simple as that.
I alone choose what I blog about. When I receive tips from people, I consider each, but I quickly abandon the ones that don’t interest me. If representatives from TARGET stores wanted to send positive news stories to me, I’d accept the invitation and read the tips. Big or small, it wouldn’t matter who the corporate entity was. The same conditions would apply. I make the call.
You can read each Wal-Mart focused blog post I’ve written by viewing my search page here.